- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 24, 2002

A coalition of religious leaders calling itself the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign has announced it will soon launch a media war against sports utility vehicles titled "What Would Jesus Drive?"
Actually, we know what Jesus drove. When he entered Jerusalem on his final, fateful journey, he was riding an ass, a long-eared relative of the horse, according to St. Matthew. In its day, the ass was the highest-powered, most polluting form of conveyance known with the possible exception of the camel.
Imagine if every American turned in his or her car today for what Jesus used to drive. Among other things, we would be knee-deep in manure. And in the 19th century, up to 15,000 dead horses a year had to be cleared from New York City's streets alone.
We would also be neck-deep in injuries, as anybody who has spent any time around these skittish, unpredictable animals knows. Today's liability lawyers would love a society dependent on animal transportation. Think of the lucrative lawsuits they could launch against General Horse Co. or Ford Ass Inc. (already locked in a deadly fight with Firestone Horseshoe Co. over who is more responsible for the hundreds of thousands of trailside blowouts).
OK, let's not get too silly. But it's equally silly, of course, to speculate on what Jesus would drive today if he were around. And if he were as concerned about fuel standards and SUVs as some of today's religious leaders seem to be, he might be tempted to ask them why so many of the vehicles are parked in church parking lots on Sundays. Why are these self-important religious leaders, Jesus might even demand to know, so unable to persuade their own parishioners to mend their ways?
The answer, of course, is that not all morality is on the side of those who prate about fuel standards without understanding much about them much less ignore the old truth that there is a tradeoff for nearly everything.
High fuel mileage means smaller, lighter vehicles, for example. This in turn means a higher rate of death in crashes indeed, some 2,000-3,000 more deaths a year than might otherwise be the case, as Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute was among the first to argue. It's not immediately obvious, notes Mr. Kazman, that morality consists of forcing one's fellow man or woman into econoboxes that are likelier to kill them.
Nor is it clear that morality lies on the side of those who want to abandon the hydrocarbon economy and shift to hydrogen-based fuel cells, solar power, wind power and other forms of alternative energy. Hydrogen power still uses more energy than it delivers. And Greens themselves have been protesting efforts to establish massive wind farms in California, off the coast of Cape Cod and elsewhere on grounds that, aside from being massively unsightly, their propellers kill huge numbers of birds.
The only form of alternative power that makes any sense at the moment is nuclear generation, to which Greens have a phobic aversion despite its cheapness and its stellar safety record (particularly when compared, say, to coal power, which generates lots of pollution and regularly kills large numbers of miners). This aversion seems rooted in the dislike of many environmentalists for economic growth itself. But where is the morality in relegating people to a North Korea style of life?
The flaw in the reasoning of groups like the Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign is not that automobiles should be made more efficient. It's in failing to see that automobiles are more efficient by far than the true alternatives and growing more efficient all the time, thanks to the remorseless pressure of the marketplace. The latest federal demand for a 1.5 mile-per-gallon increase in SUV mileage by 2007 is irrelevant, for example. To the extent gasoline is in short supply, automakers will move rapidly in that direction anyway.
That same marketplace, I have no doubt, will some day find a superior replacement for the gasoline-powered automobile. But that is likelier to happen faster if government regulations weren't making it so difficult to find the capital need to exploit new and risky inventions. There isn't much new about that, of course. It was precisely the dead hand and high taxes of Roman government, after all, that helped make the people of Jerusalem so receptive to the message of that revolutionary born in that horse garage in Bethlehem.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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